Category Archives: Concert Review

Singing at the Barbican

After thinking about it since September, I finally plucked up the courage to visit and audition for the Crouch End Festival Chorus (CEFC) just over a month ago. Meeting people who sing in the chorus and hearing their positive reviews helped convince me to give it a try, and I’m particularly grateful to those who encouraged me to audition despite my reservations about Friday rehearsals and the general time commitment. Luckily, I passed the audition and was placed among the 1st Sopranos. CEFC is an amazing group of ~130 singers, led by the dedicated and passionate David Temple. Many chorus members are in the 23-33-year-old age range, which makes for a nice mix of energy, experience, and socializing. CEFC also appealed to me for the range of repertoire it sings: from Thomas Tallis to Bach to Mahler to premieres of new commissions. Not to mention they rehearse just up the road from where I live…hard to beat that in a city as big as London!

I had missed singing in a big chorus — aside from brief stints with the Sniatyn teachers’ choir in Ukraine and the UCLU Symphony Chorus last term, I hadn’t sung in a “real” chorus since my Oberlin Musical Union days (on which I still look back very fondly). CEFC has more than adequately filled the gap in my musical participation.


My first concert with CEFC was singing at London’s Barbican — home to the London Symphony Orchestra, no big deal — along with the Forest Philharmonic. On the program(me):

  • The world premiere of a piece by contemporary composer Will Todd, “Rage Against the Dying of the Light,” with text based on the Dylan Thomas poem, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”
  • Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor “Resurrection,” which I sang my senior year at Oberlin with Musical Union and the Oberlin Orchestra, in a memorable performance that left me with an adrenaline rush for an hour or two afterwards.

After getting over a burst of nerves and lightheadedness during the afternoon rehearsal, I felt calmer for the performance and remembered how amazing it is to finally perform pieces that have been meticulously rehearsed for weeks. The orchestra sounded great — the Todd piece, which many of the chorus members seemed either to love or hate, was greatly enhanced by the instrumentation that we had little sense of when rehearsing with piano accompaniment. The Mahler was thrilling to sing, as always — sitting through an hour of intense orchestral music to finally stand and sing the finale feels incredible.

Next up for CEFC, a total change of period and pace: sacred music by Tallis, Vaughan Williams, Tavener and others performed in Waltham Abbey and Southwark Cathedral in June. I’m already looking forward to it.

Concert Review: London Philharmonic Orchestra with David Zinman & Emanuel Ax

Sarah accompanied me to this London Philharmonic Orchestra concert, for which I again scored £4 student tickets. The concert, on 19 March, was conducted by David Zinman and featured Emanuel Ax on the piano. [N.B.: David Zinman conducted the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra early in his career — I grew up in the Rochester house he lived in!]

The LPO concert, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, opened with one of Mozart’s late symphonies: No. 38 in D major, K. 504 (“Prague”). It’s called the “Prague” symphony because that’s where it was premiered in 1786. The three-movement symphony is a lovely piece — very “Mozartian” and pleasant to listen to, with glimpses of his late-style minor chords and introspection. As the concert opener, the symphony provided a great introduction to David Zinman’s conducting style: he is the subtlest conductor I have ever seen. A small, amiable-looking 77-year-old (!), Zinman conducts with gentle, non-distracting gestures — at one point during the Mozart, he completely stopped conducting, letting the orchestra carry themselves, until he took up the baton again for a cue. I loved watching him smile over to the first violins when cueing them. Such a kind-looking little man — and it was clear from the next two pieces that he and Emanuel Ax have much affection for each other.

Ax made his first appearance for Richard Strauss’ Burleske in D minor for piano and orchestra. I didn’t know this piece before the concert, but the performance made me want to hear it again. It has typical Straussian harmonic layers and hints of lush Romanticism in many of the piano’s lively passages. Most impressive were Ax’s cadenza and his superb call-and-response dialogues with the timpani and first flute at various points throughout the piece. Ax is fun to watch — we were close enough to see his mouth moving along to the music; during rests he would turn to watch the orchestra, clearly reveling in the wonderful music they were all making.

David Zinman and Emanuel Ax with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (photo credit: Sarah)

David Zinman and Emanuel Ax with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (photo credit: Sarah)

After the interval, Ax returned to the piano for a piece written some 150 years before the Strauss: Bach’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, BWV 1052 — one of the major precursors to the modern piano concerto, according to the program notes. Now I love Bach, and this piece was fun as always, but I found the balance to be slightly off — the grand piano, played with what I thought was a bit too much pedal for Bach, often overpowered the small string orchestra. Maybe that’s just because of where we were sitting — in the center of the fifth row — too close, in retrospect. Ax’s technical skill certainly cannot be doubted, and he plays with wonderful feeling.

The final piece brought us back to the late 19th century: Richard Strauss’ tone poem, Tod und Verklärung (“Death and Transfiguration”), Op. 24, which was premiered at the same concert as the Burleske we heard in the concert’s first half. I was looking forward to this piece, because I learned when we studied Tristan und Isolde in one of my MA classes that Strauss had in mind the (in)famous “Tristan Chord” from Wagner’s music drama when he was composing Tod und Verklärung. I did recognize glimmers of Wagnerian harmony throughout the piece, which is a vast, sweeping tone poem worth listening to if only for the haunting opening and breathtaking ending, which imparts a feeling of suspension with a bit of longing — the “transfiguration” or “transcendence” of the title, perhaps. Here’s a recording of Zinman conducting the piece with his “home” orchestra, the Tonhalle Orchestra Zürich:

Throughout the concert Zinman — as subtle as ever — drew a magnificent, full sound from the LPO, particularly from the low strings, timpani, and horns. Zinman and Ax’s clear enjoyment of the music made it seem like a cozy evening with friends — and great music, of course.


Concert Review: London Philharmonic Orchestra with Vladimir Jurowski & Leonidas Kavakos

I recently learned that the London Philharmonic Orchestra offers £4 tickets to select concerts for students and people under 26. How did I not know this before?! All you have to do is call the box office, quote “NOISE £4,” and show up with your student ID to collect the tickets (thank goodness for being a grad student). So I called and got tickets to the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s “Championing Freedom” concert on 22 January, featuring violinist Leonidas Kavakos and conducted by the LPO’s principal conductor, Vladimir Jurowski. For £4, our seats were even closer than when we got discounted tickets from Time Out London last year.

The concert’s first half consisted of two all-string (plus one harpsichord) pieces featuring Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, a tall, lanky character with shoulder-length hair and what you might call “hipster glasses.” The program opened with Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, BWV 1041 (1717). As the music started, a smile came to my face as I recalled that this is one of my dad’s and grandfather’s favorite concertos. Kavakos lead the small string ensemble — with Jurowski on the harpsichord — in a subtle and controlled performance, blending into and emerging out of the orchestra when necessary.

Second on the program was a new piece for me: Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s (1905-1963) Concerto funebre for violin and string orchestra, written in 1939 as a protest piece against the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. Kavakos displayed an entirely different set of skills in this concerto, which required powerful, quick technical playing — in an incredible cadenza — as well as extremely high notes sustained as softly as possible. The piece itself, divided into four movements — between which Jurowski hardly paused — was an intense and moving experience. There were echoes of Vaughan Williams-like harmonics in many of the lush, swelling string passages. Moments of extreme Romanticism were speckled amongst jagged and jarring “modern”-sounding phrases. Jurowski’s conducting was crisp and clear, and Kavakos shone as the angry yet mournful voice of the world.

If you want to get an idea of Kavakos’ skill, here’s a clip of him playing the Brahms concerto with Jurowski and the London Philharmonic:

After the interval, the orchestra filled out — winds! horns! timpani! — and Jurowski led them in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55 (“Eroica”) (1805). This piece was revolutionary upon its premiere, both for its unprecedented length and its playing with traditional symphonic form. Seeing it live brought out subtleties and complexities that I hadn’t heard before. Jurowski communicates so well with his orchestra — he was fun to watch — and really highlighted the symphony’s tempo contrasts, especially in the fourth movement. In that same movement, I enjoyed watching the main theme bounce around between instruments and be broken up here and there by tempo shifts and interjections. Jurowski also brought out the horns and double basses in ways that you might not notice on a recording. I heard the basses’ slow rolls for the first time in the brilliantly executed second movement (marcia funebre), which Jurowski took quite slowly while sustaining the tension and emotion so it never lacked for energy.

Overall, the concert was fantastic, and I loved watching Jurowski and Kavakos work with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. If you ever get a chance to see any of them, do it. Personally, I’m looking forward to the next opportunity for £4 LPO tickets…


Concert Review: BBC Singers — Baroque Spring and British Music

Can I just say that one of my favorite things about living in the UK is the BBC? Not only do they stream a lot of great stuff online, but they also offer chances to attend radio and TV recording sessions for free. All you have to do is go online, find a concert/recording you want to attend, and register for a chance to win tickets. It’s not a guarantee you’ll get the tickets but if you do there is no cost involved. Love it.

So thanks to the BBC, I was lucky enough to win tickets to a concert for Wednesday, 13 March, called “Baroque Spring and British Music” that would be recorded live for BBC Radio 3. The concert featured the well-known BBC Singers conducted by Andrew Griffiths and accompanied by David Miller on theorbo, Kirsty Whatley on baroque harp, and James McVinnie on organ. It took place at St. Paul’s Knightsbridge, a pretty little Anglican church near Hyde Park Corner, and was presented by Reverend Richard Coles, who has a lovely radio voice and offered some insight and history in between pieces.

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The program featured Passion music — centering on Jesus’ crucifixion and suffering — both in honor of the coming of spring and for Easter at the end of the month. Three composers were represented, two Baroque and one living, and each piece was broken up and sprinkled throughout the program to highlight contrasts and similarities between each composer’s work (this reminded me of Oberlin’s Collegium Musicum concerts). Antonio Lotti’s (1666-1740) Crucifixus a 6, a 8, and a 10 started, bisected, and ended the concert. Three gorgeous settings of:

Crucifixus etiam pro nobis / Sub Pontio Pilato: / Passus et sepultus est.

“He was indeed crucified for us / at the hands of Pontius Pilate: / he suffered and was buried.”

Lotti’s interweaving, yearning harmonies hearken back to Renaissance polyphony and the BBC Singers executed them beautifully. (This reminded me of the almost heartbreaking setting of this text by Mozart in his “Coronation” Mass in C, K.317 — the slow, minor-key Crucifixus interrupts the earnest, bouncy Credo for a stark contrast. Listen to that here. It was my favorite part to sing when I sang it with Oberlin’s Musical Union in May 2010.)

But back to this concert. The other Baroque composer represented was Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), best known for his keyboard sonatas. No sonatas on this day. Instead, we heard his Stabat mater for ten voices; it was divided in two parts, bookending the second part of MacMillan’s Tenebrae Responsories (keep reading to learn about that). The Stabat mater text focuses on Mary’s feelings and emotions as she sees her Son suffering on the cross. A beautiful piece, with more of those Renaissance-like interwoven harmonies. The Inflammatus et accensus (“Though I burn and am aflame”) section featured some wicked melisma on “inflammatus” that was crisply executed by a tenor and a soprano.

To balance the Baroque and represent the “British Music” part of the concert’s title was James MacMillan’s (b. 1959) Tenebrae Responsories, written in 2006 and set to a text about the darkness (tenebrae) that descended when Jesus was crucified. The piece is in three parts. In the tradition of contemporary choral composers like Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen, MacMillan’s piece uses harmonies and polyphony that could pass for Renaissance but has a bit of edginess — in sometime-jarring dissonances, textures, and outbursts — that pushes them into the modern sphere. The third movement of MacMillan’s TenebraeJesum tradidit impius (“The wicked man betrayed Jesus”), held me rapt with its chant-like bass line and difficult turns and ornamentation. The melody sounded modal, Far Eastern (dare I say “Oriental”?) at parts. It ends quietly and dramatically, with a soprano humming a haunting melody over and over as she slowly exits the room.

Andrew Griffiths drew exquisite performances from the BBC Singers. Their Latin diction was excellent and they blended beautifully. The abrupt outbursts and sometimes-strange harmonies made the MacMillan piece sounded quite difficult to sing, but this choir pulled it off magnificently.


Concert Review: London Philharmonic Orchestra with Marin Alsop

A couple of weeks ago I signed up to get a daily email with Time Out London‘s discount offers on everything from sporting events to restaurant meals to theatre and music performances. So of course I was thrilled when I saw an offer for £15 tickets to a London Philharmonic Orchestra concert on a Wednesday evening. It was a steal for the excellent seats we had in the rear stalls of Royal Festival Hall.

awesome seats for only £15!

awesome seats for only £15!

The concert was part of the LPO and Southbank Centre’s “The Rest is Noise Festival,” inspired by Alex Ross’ eponymous book on 20th century music history (I highly recommend reading the book).

This particular concert was conducted by Marin Alsop, current Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, who is a petite but dynamic and crisp conductor. I enjoyed watching her, and she clearly enjoyed what she was doing. Overall, the concert and the experience were fantastic. Royal Festival Hall is bright, modern, and open. The program we saw was called “The American Dream” and was all about America as interpreted through the eyes of European composers who spent time in the States around the turn of the 20th century.

Royal Festival Hall

Royal Festival Hall

The program opened with the all-black London Adventist Chorale singing three spirituals, a Capella — smooth, rich, crisp execution and tight harmonies…beautiful. The third spiritual they sang was “Going Home,” which was given lyrics and effectively turned into a spiritual after Dvorak composed his Symphony no. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 (“From the New World”). The spiritual is based on the tune of the symphony’s second movement (Largo). As soon as the choir’s last notes died out, the orchestra launched directly into the “New World” Symphony, not allowing for applause.

It was one of the best performances of Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony that I’ve witnessed (and I’ve seen it performed at least 4 times, the previous best performance being that of the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood some years ago). The tempi were slightly faster than I’m used to — especially in the slow second movement — but the execution was so crisp that the quicker tempi didn’t bother me and, in fact, really enhanced the dynamism of the piece. The horns were fantastic and the low strings were brought out to reveal textures I had never known were there. Alsop conducted the symphony from memory.

After intermission, Alsop spent a few minutes introducing us to each piece (she is an excellent speaker: clear, straightforward, super knowledgeable but makes the material accessible for music aficionados and amateurs alike). She explained the influence of jazz on Mihaud when he spent time in New York City; she described how he would sit in Harlem jazz clubs trying to scribble down what the musicians were playing. Jazz heavily influenced and inspired Milhaud’s La Creation du monde, actually a ballet based on African legends but performed at this concert sans dancers. It was a cool piece, scored for an interesting ensemble that included a saxophone and drum set. Parts of it felt improvisatory.

The last piece was Egdar Varese’s Ameriques — HUGE orchestra (14 percussionists! 5 of each wind instrument! Double rows of horns!). Before the orchestra played the whole piece, Alsop explained the influence on Varese of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun harmonics (Varese takes the opening flute scale from the Debussy and reformulates it for the opening of Ameriques) and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring rhythms. Alsop had the orchestra play a few excerpts from the Debussy and the Stravinsky, paralleled with the Varese, to attune the audience to the similarities. The piece itself was aptly described as “wild” by F. Loud, crashing at times, energetic (it depicts the streets of New York City in the 1920s), complete with (lots of) sirens. It took energy just to absorb all of the different sounds and motifs that are layered on top of one another. I was glad Alsop had given the introduction, because I was able to pinpoint many Stravinsky- and Debussy-esque moments throughout Ameriques.